Voluntourism in the Amazon
A village school and community hall sits on the banks of Mamori Lake in the Brazilian Amazon, about 80km south of Manaus. (Alex Robinson)
The piranha flopped into the boat right next to Gero Mesquita’s bare foot, gnashing and squirming in fury. Mesquita grabbed it with swift swipe and pinched its cheeks between his fingers, exposing a gaping mouth of razor-sharp teeth. He then held the jaws over a pencil-thick branch on the adjacent riverbank and let the fish bite. The teeth sliced through the wood like butter. “That’s why people are afraid of piranhas”, he said, throwing the fish in a bucket alongside half a dozen others, before releasing the canoe from the bank and heading downstream to Maria de Nazaré village, located about 80km from Manaus.
When people think of the Brazilian Amazon, they often think of empty forest and vast rivers. But the Amazon is home to millions of people and myriad Amazon tributaries and oxbow lakes. There are huge cities too, like Belém at the river’s mouth and Manaus in the heart of the forest. Other Amazonians live in the forest itself, most of them in idyllic small communities along the water, with access to abundant fish, game and forest fruit. But while abject poverty is low, these villagers are among the most geographically and economically isolated in South America, with little access to education and services. And after many years of seeing little help come their way, gold-miner turned environmentalist Gero Mesquita was determined to help them.
“I started from poverty myself,” he explained, “When I was 15 years old I saw my mother and my brothers kicked out of the home where they lived. They couldn’t afford the rent. So I went in search of gold on the tiny tributaries in the Amazon. But gold-mining is destructive. You have to use many heavy metals in the process – blasting away at the riverbanks with high pressure hoses to produce a churn of mud. There’s a lot of pollution.”
Mesquita fell in love with the forest, and found himself facing the same problem faced by villagers throughout the Amazon: it is very hard to earn a living while also protecting the forest and its wildlife. For many villagers, the meat and pelts from local animals are considered a form of income, better for hunting than preserving.
Then on a trip to Manaus in the 1980s, Mesquita saw the solution. He saw villagers selling endangered species of fish, like the 10ft long, air-breathing pirarucu (a relative of lungfish) for next to nothing in the markets. And at the same time, he saw foreign tourists looking for guides to take them to the forest. The Amazon is one of the few regions of Brazil where international tourism is greater than domestic, so sustainable tourism could easily provide villagers with an economic alternative to hunting.
“It was clear to me from that moment,” Mesquita said. “[Sustainable tourism] would give villagers income from showing tourists the Amazon and its wildlife, rather than killing and selling it for a pittance. So I got work doing odd jobs in a small hotel in order to learn English, worked my way up to the reception desk and then finally became a guide.”
Now Mesquita runs his own company, Amazon Gero Tours, based out of Manaus. Almost all of his customers are foreign tourists, and the tours he offers are a unique mix Amazon adventure combined with immersive community-based tourism. Travellers get to do the standard adventure activities -- like canoe and trail safaris through the forest, fishing for piranha (which are not endangered in the Amazon) and learning how to find water and food in the forest -- however even those who stay just a few days at Mesquita’s Ararinha Jungle Lodge (located some 100km south of Manaus by boat on the Paraná do Mamori river) also get to spend time with local villagers. Mesquita offers a range of programmes where volunteers can spend 10 days to three weeks living in a community, teaching English or basic mathematics, and initiating arts and crafts projects. If travellers want to stay on for longer, that is possible too. Mesquita can organise village stays of up to three months.
There are a handful of larger corporate enterprises in Manaus (and a number of smaller companies) that offer Amazon cruises and jungle hotel stays, and several also provide jobs to local people. But Mesquita’s is one of the only companies that ploughs profits directly back into local communities and offers tourists the opportunity to volunteer in the villages for short or medium-stays. Even those with limited time can make a difference.
“Since we’ve been involved in Senhor Gero’s project our lives have begun to get better,” said householder Marinelza do Santos, as she prepared Mesquita’s piranhas for the pot. “We now have work and don’t rely on hunting and fishing. Our community schools have more life and pupils, thanks to visits from tourists and placements from volunteer teachers. Life here in the jungle is getting better for us.”
Mesquita meanwhile goes from strength to strength. “I’ve learn English and Spanish. Now I’m learning German and some of my guides are learning French. We want to cater to anyone who comes to the Amazon. All will feel very welcome.”